What ever happened to public school being free?
Earlier this spring, when SchoolBook asked public school parents to tell us what they spent on their children’s education, we were inundated with numbers.
Many wrote in to say they felt “nickeled and dimed.” One mother said she resented being asked to bridge the gap between the city’s “spartan budget” and her own wishes for her children. Others railed against the inequities that so much reliance on parent money is causing in a system where so many students live at or below the poverty level.
Yes, some parents said they were more than happy to give $75 in class-photo money, $230 in senior dues, $350 for elementary school trips, $500 worth of school supplies, and to respond to direct appeals with suggested donations that could soar into the $1,300 zone, at a time when the Education Department is grappling with five consecutive years of state budget cuts.
“We’re conditioned to expect fund-raising,” said Jessica Wolf, a policy director at Teachers College with an 11th grader at Stuyvesant High School.
But the vast majority said they did it not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to.
“You just got to do it or you won’t get what you want from New York,” said Rachel Leinweber, a Brooklyn mother of a fourth grader at New Explorations Into Science, Technology and Math High School, known as Nest+M, on the Lower East Side, who gave the PTA there $2,000 this year.
Many parents said they were downright puzzled by how very much was missing from their principals’ budget. “One would assume that a public school system would provide basic, basic stuff,” said Sarah Jacobs, 50, an artist with a sophomore at the N.Y.C. Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea, referring to toilet paper and paper towels. “But it doesn’t anymore.”
“We rely on public school to provide an education,” said Tina Mantis, 48, a designer and the mother of a sixth grader at New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts in Sunset Park, who has spent $400 on crayons, composition books and Kleenex for her son and his classmates this year. “But at my son’s school, they don’t even have enough money to cover the arts budget. It’s shameful.”
PTA and Parent Association leaders at schools where parents pay for everything from $40 science kits to $100,000 science teachers say they have no choice but to turn to their families for financial assistance. (Some schools have lost more than a million dollars over the past five years in cuts.) In response, the ones with the wealthiest parent bodies run direct-giving drives that go beyond the $1,000 mark per child, allowing some to make up the entire difference on their own.
“We are fortunate to have the money, but it’s not a position we parents want to be in,” said Rachel Laiserin, 43, a Parent Association president at Public School 87 William Sherman on the Upper West Side, which raised $1.5 million last year.
Many said they worried about children at schools where PTAs were unable to generate extra funding. “Does this create inequities between schools with higher income kids and those without?” asked Ms. Jacobs. “Absolutely.”
“The idea that education is this great equalizer is just fiction,” said Bliss Broyard, 46, an author and the mother of a 5-year-old at Urban Assembly Academy of Arts & Letters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Said Troy Torrison, 47, a creative director, and the father of a third grader at P.S. 234 Independence School in TriBeCa, “We shouldn't kid ourselves that public education is about giving everyone an equal shot at success.”
Others said they felt both annoyed and guilt-ridden that they couldn’t give as much as was now demanded of them.
Naomi Cohn, the mother of a senior at Hunter College High School, and a lawyer who was out of work for two years, said she spent $642 on items related to her daughter’s coming graduation. When the school came knocking with a minimum PTA donation request of $1,200, Ms. Cohn put her foot down, refusing to pay the full freight.
“When I received those letters it made me feel bad,” she said.
For Michael A. Rebell, the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teacher’s College and the co-author of "Equality and Education," private spending in public education is less of a money issue than a legal one. According to the New York state constitution, all students are guaranteed a quality education for free.
But “quality” is the unsettled term. Mr. Rebell said when parents are paying for items that go far beyond the “extras,” that means the city is not doing its job.
“The kind of people we want our public schools to produce are civic participants who can not only vote intelligently, but are going to be well-rounded citizens,” Mr. Rebell said. “You have high schools in New York City who can’t offer physics. It’s outrageous that that’s the state that we’re in.”
The National PTA president, Betsy Landers, worries that the very parents most concerned about these government shortfalls are inadvertently exacerbating them.
“Fund-raising is a double-edged sword,” Ms. Landers said. “While many PTAs can make up the difference for what schools cannot provide, in doing so they are also giving those who make the decisions a pass.”
And that, Ms. Landers said, can be devastating to schools without parents to write checks.
Schools Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott is aware of the issue. His solution has been to help less fortunate schools seek out private funding through the city’s Fund for Public Schools, a 10-year-old nonprofit that distributes thousands of dollars a year in grant money to needy schools in library and arts grants, and advises schools on their own fund-raising initiatives. “It helps, not necessarily to level it to a level playing field, but at least it gives them a leg up,” Mr. Walcott said.
Councilman Brad Lander, who has helped parents in his Brooklyn district devise ways to share fund-raising know-how, and sometimes money, through an annual PTA run that raised more than $10,000 this spring to be shared among the three dozen participating schools, says what leads parents to help out at their children’s school is “a civic impulse.” He said, “It’s pro-public.”
“Then there is a deep discomfort wanting a more equal system," he added. "It makes sense that they are grappling with that.”
Chris Palmer and Elbert Chu contributed to this article.